The Struggle Ahead for Soweto

Conversations with a Ghetto Leader

Dr. Motlana is one of the unofficial leaders of South Africa's urban blacks. He is chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten, a grassroots black organization designed to better the political and social life of the urban black. The South African government has twice banned Dr. Motlana. His eldest son fled the country after the 1976 Soweto Riots. Despite recent efforts on the part of the government, Motlana refuses to partake in any government sponsored activities.

When we first contacted Dr. Motlana, he invited us to his home in Soweto. What we didn't know at the time was that whites must obtain a special visitors permit from the government to enter the black township of Soweto. To avoid the troublesome process of getting a pass, we suggested that we meet for dinner Johannesburg and asked Dr. Motlana to choose a restaurant. He politely declined.

What we didn't realize was that there was no choice. The only restaurants in which South African blacks and whites can mingle are those few restaurants designated as "international" by the government. "International" status is given almost exclusively to the few five star hotels in order to accomodate black diplomats.

The night of the interview Dr. Motlana arrived with his son Karabo, a university student. As if by mutual agreement, niceties were dispensed with and we tackled issues that kept us talking well into the night.

For simplicity's sake we have labelled our questions, Us, Dr. Motlana's answers Dr. M., and his son's comments, K.

Us: Dr. Motlana, you're chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten. How did the committee come about? What is its purpose? Dr. M.: After the riots in 1976, the youth got together and said we must do something to organize our own affairs. They approached me and asked me to come to their organizational meeting, where I was elected chairman. We have no specific goals, we just want an impartial voice for the community. We want to arrange our own affairs and not have someone from the West Rand Administration (government agency) arrange them for us.

Us: What is the Committee's power?

Dr. M.: We have the people with us.

Us: Aren't you in fact endorsing apartheid by accepting your fate in Soweto, rather than struggling to get out?

Dr M.: I've been accused of collaborating, that is nonsense. We must walk a very narrow line. This is not America where Martin Luther King can march down Washington Avenue. We are making a strong statement by the mere existence of the committee showing Afrikaanerdom that we will decide our own future.

Us: Aren't you concerned about yourself, your family?

Dr. M.: Yes, of course we're concerned. I was banned twice, I'll probably be banned again. They could banish me to the Kalahari desert. Of course we are afraid. My son was forced to leave the country, the BOSS intercept our correspondence with him. We are against a fortress.

Us: Despite the suffering you endure there were no riots in Soweto this June 16th, why?

Dr. M.: We didn't start the riots of 1976. It was the police that rioted, not the people. The police were nervous, jumpy, they turned a tense situation into a blood bath. This year the police were more experienced so there were no riots.

Us: The government says that the blacks are divided. They claim that the urban blacks are at odds with the rural blacks and that you are strongly divided along tribal lines.